‘Elsbeth’ Recap, Episode 3: ‘Reality Shock’



Reality Shock

Season 1

Episode 3

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: CBS

The second of a back-to-back set of new episodes, “Reality Shock” gives us scarcely any forward motion for Elsbeth’s DOJ-mandated investigation of potential corruption in her assigned precinct, but a bit like Hansel and Gretel following the path of stones in the moonlight, Elsbeth’s eye for shiny and tenaciously clinging glitter eventually leads her where she really needs to go.

Our murder victim of the week is Wendy Wexler (Nadia Dajani), electrocuted in her tub with one of her own personally-branded blenders (Wendy’s Blendies!) after trying to blackmail Skip Mason, her (fake) friend and (actual) executive producer on the super-successful reality series Lavish Ladies. The blackmail gambit was a bridge too far for Skip, especially after Wendy portentously name-dropped Katricia, who is as yet unseen, but let’s remember her name. In the end, Wendy’s reach exceeded her grasp, and Skip turned Wendy’s Blendies against her. He’d told her to knock off the constant impromptu product placement, but would she listen? No! The over-the-top version of Chekov’s gun that results is somehow both grim and delightful.

For clarity and legal reasons, Lavish Ladies is absolutely positively 100% not Real Housewives of New York. Skip — Jesse Tyler Ferguson, expertly delivering an increasingly high-strung and indignant man on the verge of a nervous breakdown — proudly displays framed posters for all of the Lavish Ladies franchises he’s spun off over the years in his office. His ratings-crushing brainchild is Skip’s pride and joy, and as God is his witness, he was not about to let the likes of Wendy and her threats of blackmail endanger the flow of money and power he’s grown so used to enjoying.

I can’t help thinking that if this guy had gotten out of the Lavish Ladies game just after it hit big, he could have enjoyed a long, luxurious, residuals-fueled retirement entirely free of these women who he spends the rest of the episode describing as spoiled, silly, untrustworthy fame whores and lushes, each of whom he also (privately) claims is his favorite. He probably would not have turned to murder, which would have been a better outcome for everyone! Instead, he’s stuck on a gilded hamster wheel of his own creation, applying his editing skills, excellent memory for details, and technological know-how to create an alibi-furnishing voicemail using a snippet of Tracy (Rebecca Creskoff), a chronically late Lavish Lady, celebrating being almost on time for once.

Thinking that his editing prowess has done the job of deflecting any suspicion that could have been heading his way, Skip isn’t as vigilant as he should be once Elsbeth and Officer Kaya are on the scene. Like crows and ravens, Elsbeth is drawn to shiny things, and also like those brilliant corvids, she’s very good at problem-solving. Skip is simply no match for Elsbeth’s sparkle-fixated tenacity, particularly when paired with Officer Kaya’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lavish Ladies.

This peek into Officer Kaya’s interests outside of work continues the development of her investigative partnership and friendship with Elsbeth. After being a little bit miffed at Elsbeth for outing her at work as a Lavish Ladies superfan, Officer Kaya softens her stance, inviting Elsbeth to her place in Queens for a crash course in Lavish Ladies lore. The evening gives Elsbeth the opportunity to appreciate Officer Kaya’s eye for interior design and proves crucial for Elsbeth’s dogged assembly of the many, varied details she needs to break Skip’s alibi, a process she starts on her own, and later continues at Captain Wagner’s request. There’s definitely a grudging admiration thing going on for him now.

The first detail Elsbeth chases down is the role of glitter in this murder, and it’s ubiquitous — in Wendy’s tub, courtesy of the bath bombs she flogged via Cameo; on sloppily cleaned wine glasses in her kitchen cupboards; on Skip’s hands as he sat for an on-set manicure the morning after Wendy’s death. The second piece falls into place as Elsbeth catches Tracy’s memorable comment about being on time, complete with an exuberant “yay for me!”, during her binge watch at Officer Kaya’s home. What are the chances that she’d say the exact same words, with the exact same intonation, on TV and by chance on a voicemail?

Once they begin, Elsbeth and Officer Kaya pick at thread after loose thread in the overall narrative Skip has been weaving. He repeatedly describes Wendy’s drinking as sad, but her autopsy reveals that she wasn’t drunk or high at the time of her death, decreasing the likelihood that she knocked the blender into the tub in a stupor. Besides, margaritas are a party drink. It just doesn’t add up! Skip’s editing of Lavish Ladies seems to prove that Wendy and Tracy were big rivals, but a sincerely stricken Tracy reveals that they were actually sincere besties who planned their fake fights in advance to let Skip hold onto his fantasy of being a drama mastermind.

Skip’s delusions of puppet master grandeur extend to his editing prowess, as he boasts/tells on himself, “I can make anyone seem the way I want, given enough footage.” He thinks that his villain’s edit of Wendy’s long-suffering paid intern Valencia (Tavia Hunt) will capture and hold Detective Donnelly’s investigative eye long enough for him to wriggle free of any scrutiny, but one brief follow-up interview with Officer Kaya and Elsbeth puts paid to that little scheme. Wendy drove Valencia up the wall, but she’d never have killed a boss it was so easy to steal from. The NYPD thanks you for the refreshing candor, Valencia. Meanwhile, Skip does himself no favors by clinging to his original edit. Why is he being persecuted like this? He’s very busy, he made these women into a cultural phenomenon, and by the way: he has an alibi! The Max Fischer screaming “I wrote a hit play!!” energy here is so funny and so telling.

Finally, Officer Kaya and Elsbeth get to the bottom of the Katricia (Julie Ann Emery) question. She had been an original Lavish Lady but left the show under a heavy cloud of scandal known as the Montauk Meltdown. Drunk and perhaps also high, Katricia had lost it on camera, eventually stripping entirely. It was great TV, but it was a cruel trick; during a conversation at Katricia’s Chelsea hideaway (a detail furnished by Officer Kaya, thanks to a brief mention of it on a podcast), Katricia reveals that a remorseful Wendy had eventually confessed to helping Skip drug her, and had sufficient evidence to either get him back or go to prison. Hm!

For a woman who got shoved out of a reality series rooted in pettiness and messy for being too sober and level-headed to be good TV, Katricia sure knows how to bring the drama. She turns up at Wendy’s memorial service in a Ferrari-red ensemble (including a black-and-red fascinator festooned with feathers and tulle) and tricks Skip into confessing while unknowingly being on-mic. Narrative symmetry! We love to see it.

• Another week, another detective in need of Elsbeth’s fresh eye. As Detective Donnelly, Molly Price delivers some of the episode’s funniest lines, including my favorite, “Why do people insist on mixing frozen cocktails in the bathroom?!” It’s nonsensical, but she sells it beautifully.

• If you, too, harbor a fascination with the sinister sparkliness of glitter, Caity Weaver’s 2018 deep dive into its origins, uses, and secrets should be at the top of your to-read list.

• If Elsbeth’s Captain Wagner Corruption-Watch strikes you as odd in this episode — why is Elsbeth acting like this is the first time she’s heard about Wally and his propensity to do foolish things? Just recall, it’s a blip caused by the schedule change that swapped the airing order for the season’s second and third episodes. After being cautioned by Wagner to forget she even heard Wally’s name, she asks Lieutenant Noonan (Fredric Lehne) about it, but he brushes her off, saying he and Captain Wagner have known each other since their days at the Police Academy and he’s got more integrity than anyone else Noonan knows.

• Costume of the Week: a very tough call, but I’m giving this honor to the fiery pepper-red-orange blazer and polka dot pussy-bow blouse paired with black cigarette pants ensemble Elsbeth wears down at the NYPD precinct.

• One of the framed Lavish Ladies posters in Skip’s office has a typo, referring to a “season premier”, rather than the correct spelling, “premiere.” My headcanon is that Skip actually thinks that’s the correct spelling and that he threw a big tantrum about it, followed by being unbearably smug once everyone else decided it wasn’t worth arguing over. In retrospect, they’re all glad they dropped it because what if they’d wound him up enough that he’d killed them, too? 


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